By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 6, 2007
In “Resurrecting the Champ,” the new film by director Rod Lurie, reporter Erik Kernan describes his latest story to his family. The story is about a former championship boxer who is now living on the streets of Denver, and Kernan’s young son tells him that it sounds sad. No, Kernan replies, it will be a “hopeful” story. And “hopeful” is just the word to describe “Resurrecting the Champ,” a film that uses the relationship between writer and subject to introduce ideas of responsibility, pride and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Based on a 1997 magazine article by J.R. Moehringer, “Resurrecting the Champ” takes on quite a lot: the history of boxing, the ethics of journalism, and the relationships that shape people’s lives. Although the pacing is sometimes slow, it is a touching story with several important, if predictable, messages.
The film centers around Kernan and a homeless man who calls himself the Champ. The Champ shuffles, feints and mumbles to himself as he makes his way through the streets of Denver; he claims to be “Battling” Bob Satterfield, a legendary heavyweight that everyone believes has died.
Kernan first encounters the Champ as he leaves a boxing match he has covered for the Denver Times. The Champ has been beaten by a group of young men who taunt the old man as a game. Although concerned, Kernan is happy enough to give the man some money and go on his way. His initial reaction is “not my problem.” He remembers the encounter later, however, when called upon to come up with a story idea that is out of the ordinary. He decides to tell the old man’s story, hoping that it will bring him the attention and higher profile stories he craves at the paper.
The story comes along at just the right time for Kernan. Nothing is going well for him—he is fumbling in his career, his editor is pushing him for higher quality work, his wife has asked for a separation, and he desperately misses his 6-year-old son as a result. Kernan also has unresolved issues with his deceased father, a legend himself in the world of boxing journalism.
At first, the story is a dream come true for both men; it brings attention and a human connection to the Champ, and it gives Kernan the accolades he craves. Soon, however, questions about the story’s content force Kernan to face up to several issues he has neglected, including his career and his relationships with his estranged wife and his son. He must take responsibility for his own actions and face up to the mistakes he has made. In short, he must grow up.
The relationship between fathers and sons is central to the movie. Kernan tries to live up to the professional standard set by his father but is crippled by the lack of any kind of personal warmth from him. He tries to do a better job with his own son, but their close relationship is jeopardized because he tries too hard to be a hero to his young son. The Champ is no less crippled; abused by his father, he loses his own son to circumstances beyond his control.
The centerpiece of the film is the relationship between Kernan and the Champ, and their encounters are genuinely appealing and interesting. One of the few issues that the film neglects, however, is the responsibility, if any, Kernan should take for the physical welfare of this man he has befriended.
It is a stretch to say that the Champ becomes a father figure for Kernan, but through his tutelage Kernan becomes a better observer, and the Champ opens his eyes to more than just boxing. One of the most poignant scenes in the film comes when Kernan shows the Champ some old footage of the older man boxing. Seeing himself in his glory days affects the battler immensely, and his reaction is truly touching.
The reason this relationship works as well as it does is the masterful performance of the always impressive Samuel L. Jackson as the Champ. Jackson is almost unrecognizable in heavy makeup that creates the look of a man whose life has been spent trading blows. He speaks in a wheezing, singsong voice that adds to the eccentric persona. The eyes that stare out from the scarred face are the key to the character; the Champ’s eyes radiate a unique wariness that never leaves the character, even when he is at his happiest. These are the eyes of a boy who was beaten by his father, a young man who made his living in a brutal sport and an old man who has lost everything and lives at the mercy of every person who passes him in the street.
The film also includes other fine performances: Josh Hartnett does a good, straightforward job as Kernan, a man struggling to finds himself, while several supporting players steal attention, most notably Alan Alda as Kernan’s brittle editor and David Paymer as the magazine editor who pushes Kernan into writing the story. Kathryn Morris and Dakota Goyo are sympathetic as Kernan’s patient wife and son.
Although “Resurrecting the Champ” drags in spots, its heart is in the right place. Characters learn, they grow, and they struggle to do the right thing. That is a hopeful thing, indeed.